Five centuries ago it was a far less secure life being part of the animal kingdom than it is now. No Vets in Practice, Pet Rescue or bearded antipodeans named Rolf to promote the cuddly image of God’s creatures. Just a society that saw animals as equally capable of committing crime as humans and a legal system fully equipped to try them and hang them if the need arose.
It may seem like making mountains out of molehills, and that was certainly the case at Stelvio in northern Italy in 1519, when the authorities decided that damage done to crops in the vicinity of the town was an act of pure wanton destruction.
The identity of the culprits was obvious and a warrant was promptly issued to summon a number of moles, which the court desired ‘should show cause for their conduct by pleading their exigencies and distress’.
The moles, while quite evidently vandals of the lowest order, must have had a modicum of intelligence because they cunningly failed to turn up at their trial on the appointed day.
The court passed judgment in their absence and the moles were sentenced to exile, although as an act of mercy they were promised safe conduct on their journey ‘and an additional respite of 14 days to all those who are with young’.
But, even as the sentence was read, the pesky burrowers were already shovelling like blazes, making their great escape, ready to pop up in some other poor devil’s field to create the same havoc all over again. Little varmints!
Nor is this by any means an isolated case. In May 1545 the residents of St Julien in France held a mass trial of vine weevils when their precious wine crop was destroyed. The beetles had their own lawyer, Pierre Falcon, but he failed to bring home their case.
It seems pigs were the real delinquents of the animal kingdom. Records show that 34 were executed for the murder of children, and the porcine culprits were often dressed in human clothing for their court appearances before being publicly hanged or burnt at the stake.
Astonishingly, the notion of animals as criminals survived until the end of the nineteenth century, and the last known such trial was in Switzerland in 1906, when two men and a dog were tried for robbing and killing a man. The men got life but the dog was condemned to death.
One supposes we have moved on. Now we may prosecute the owners of troublesome beasts and order that the worst offending creatures be ‘put down’, but the idea of animals or birds being ‘tried’ as such seems ludicrous.
Nonetheless, that doesn’t stop the animal kingdom occasionally making legal headlines even in our more enlightened times. Take the case heard at Oxford Crown Court on 9 October 1992. Mark Leach, the accused, had suffered neighbour trouble going right back to 1988, when Susan and Paddy Williams moved in next door – with two parrots.
The incessant squawking drove Leach to distraction and he responded first in kind by using a football rattle to create a rival racket. Still the parrots squawked and relations reached an all-time low in March 1992, when Leach and his wife Dolores decided enough was enough.
They kicked down the garden fence and marched on the aviary. Then, amid a flurry of feathers and spine-chilling screeching, Leach strangled one of the birds. Not content merely with parroticide, he bit Williams on the thigh as he tried to intervene. It was too late, though, for the poor feathered wretch had been dispatched to meet his maker.
In court, Leach admitted the strangling and to damaging property, for which he was fined £600 and ordered to pay £350 costs, but not before his defence, David Osborne, had played a thirty-second tape to the court in which the squawking of the inconsiderate but now sadly dead parrot had been registered in his prime at nearly ninety decibels.
This is believed to be the only case of an ex-parrot (not a Norwegian Blue, as far as I’m aware) being called to give evidence in a court of law. Maybe we’re not as far removed from the sixteenth-century Italians as we like to think.